Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

When a loved one can’t accept your non-acceptance of god

It’s not often that I bother with proto-arch-evangelist Billy Graham, but on this particular Sunday his article seemed appropriate:

What to Do When a Loved One Rejects God

The correct answer is, of course, to congratulate them on their clear-headed reasoning skills, and offer support for the sometimes tough deconversion process that follows. And thank Zeus that they’ll no longer be trying to evangelise you, with that hopeful but concerned expression that loved ones often wear when they consider the state of your hypothetical soul.

But that’s not Billy’s answer.

Q: Our college-age son says he doesn’t believe in God anymore. We talk about it some (mainly when we’re trying to get him to go to church), but we always end up arguing. How can we convince him that he’s wrong? – Mrs. A. McC.

Gotta love those assumptions. I suppose a bit of evidence is out of the question.

A: In all honesty, you probably can’t convince your son that he’s wrong right now – because he’s probably not willing to admit that he might be. Hopefully, some day, he will be open to changing his beliefs – but right now, he isn’t.

Well, not willing to admit you might be wrong isn’t a good thing, that’s true. This ad appeared on the same web page, which gives you some idea as to how eager these folks are to allow that their beliefs could be mistaken.


I’d like to pose the question from the opposite perspective: what to do when a loved one accepts God, but won’t leave you alone about it? In which case, my answer would match Mr Graham’s answer to the letter.

I don’t mind if my family stays religious. I’m certainly not trying to deconvert anyone — I’m happy for them to do as they please. (If someone finds themselves not believing any more, but they don’t know what to do about it, that’s another story.) I don’t even mind if people in my family (or anyone else) want to talk about religion to me; it’s actually one of my favourite topics. I wish they’d bring it up more! Just as long as they know that when they do, they know they can expect a factual and straightforward response.

I’ve just received a message from a loved one who I’ve known for years, who’s still in the LDS Church. Here’s an excerpt, emphasis in original:

I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church.

No, you’re merely certain.

I also know that you and Miss Perfect love one another and would want to be married and sealed for all eternity.

That would be lovely, if eternity were on offer. I wonder if anyone else can offer eternity on slightly better terms, perhaps without threatening me with eternal consequences if I don’t obey commandments involving (say) giving them lots of time and money.

In order to do this you need to come back into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sounds simple. So what’s the problem? Equally simple. The LDS Church is untrue — a fact which every non-Mormon already knows. Like all religions, it teaches untrue things. All I ask is that a religion live up to its own hype, and this one doesn’t.

To put a finer point on it, the doctrines of the LDS Church (and every religion I’ve ever run across, which are myriad) fall into exactly three categories:

  1. Teachings that are unconfirmed by evidence, like the existence of supernatural beings, an afterlife, and so on
  2. Teachings that have been refuted by evidence, e.g. ancient Americans are Hebrews who spoke a form of Egyptian, rode horses, and smelted steel
  3. Teachings that are more or less true, but which were already known by people without any revelation being necessary. For example, Mormons are fond of claiming that the Word of Wisdom is revolutionary, especially about smoking. But the anti-tobacco movement was getting started around the 1830’s, about the same time as the temperance movement, and could have been familiar to people in that area.

(Naturally, if anyone thinks I’m wrong, and knows of a religion with doctrines that do not fit into these three categories, please mention them in comments.)

It’s especially hard for family members to deal with your deconversion. Spouses, parents, siblings — they all want you to be happy, and they’ve been told you can’t be if you’re outside the religion. My old religion pretended to be able to keep families together after death, dependent on you staying in the system. Which basically means that you’re threatened with eternal isolation if you leave. This is a despicable tactic for religions to use. If I were feeling nasty, I might call it emotional hostage-taking. It makes it impossible for family members to have emotional boundaries — they think your choices will affect them for eternity.

So it’s hard for me to feel upset with caring people who try to evangelise me. I’m just glad that, as someone who accepts rationality, I’m no longer prone to the kind of worry that they feel.

8 Comments

  1. I think you're forgetting about Pastafarianism. And the evidence is all around you (especially at dinner time).

  2. And religion provides comfort during times of hunger.

    I'd agree. RaMen.

  3. How about 'when a loved-one can't accept your acceptance of other people's acceptance of god'?

  4. I'm having trouble accepting your acceptance of acceptance of theism.

  5. Billy Graham, religious rock star and almost as smart as Elvis. That's who I will ask for advice.

  6. 'Someone' said to me today that they would rather that there had been a death in the family than Toby and I do this (leave the Mormon church) to them. Great, didn't realise my I was worth more dead than alive but thanks for the info!

    They also said we are being stubborn, immature and that we are just plain wrong.

  7. You're going to have to put up with some of that, I'm afraid. When you accept reason, they feel like you're striking at the heart of all their most important (irrational) beliefs, ones that they have hoped for years that you'd adopt. So there's going to be some emotional hardball.

    It doesn't have to be a war though. I walk a delicate balance with my family. I've said quite a number of times that I'm still open-minded about religion (which I am), and that if anyone comes to me with good solid empirical evidence for the existence of a supernatural being and if they can offer evidence that this supernatural being is in fact the god of the Bible/Book of Mormon/etc, that I'll change my mind back.

    Saying this tends to turn down the emotional temperature of the conversation, and they realise that the onus is on them to provide the evidence. (They think you're just plain wrong? Okay, then what do they offer to bolster their claim? )

    The downside of this approach is that I'm allowing the prospect of letting my family try and evangelise me. But I don't mind that so much. It means that religion is not a taboo topic, which is a good thing. What else would they talk about?

    Still — better dead than non-Mormon? Now you see how people in other religions can kill their own children for apostasy.

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